Setting the record straight…
Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Immaculate Conception
The theological authority of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is unsurpassed in the Catholic Church. He is the Universal Doctor of the Church. He is the patron saint of theologians, philosophers, academics, and of Catholic schools. His great learning and understanding were matched only by his radiant virtue, especially his chastity, and for this reason he is also honored with the title of Angelic Doctor.
Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to find in our day, especially on the internet, people who treat the sacred teachings of the Universal Doctor as little more than glorified opinions devoid of genuine authority. Such people, who themselves could perhaps not pass a single exam in dogmatic theology, tend to dismiss quickly any teaching of St. Thomas that does not suit them on the grounds that, well, “St. Thomas was wrong on the Immaculate Conception!”
This has become a popular “one-size-fits-all” means for people to neutralize the unsurpassed authority of the Doctor of Doctors, a remark that ultimately serves as a carte blanche to dissent from Aquinas on any theological matter one pleases. “Possibly the briefest way to deal with such nonsense”, one sedevacantist advises, “is to ask the armchair expert if they could kindly explain what St Thomas DID teach on this doctrine. Embarrassing silence is the usual response” (“St. Thomas Aquinas’s position on the Immaculate Conception”).
It is time we examined this accusation a bit more closely: Is it really true? Did St. Thomas Aquinas deny the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, defined as a dogma ex cathedra by Pope Pius IX in 1854?
To answer this question, we direct our readers’ attention to an article that explains exactly what St. Thomas did and did not hold concerning the Immaculate Conception:
- St. Thomas and the Immaculate Conception by Rev. P. Lumbreras, O.P.
(Homiletic and Pastoral Review XXIV , no. 3, pp. 253-263)
As the Dominican author explains, there are nine different ways in which one can understand the term “immaculate conception.” St. Thomas denied the first eight of these meanings, and concerning the ninth one he did not speak at all. It was, however, the immaculate conception in the ninth sense that was defined as dogma by Pius IX. In other words, Aquinas only denied all erroneous definitions of “immaculate conception” and simply never considered as a possibility the one that was eventually proclaimed a dogma.
The theological crux of the issue was maintaining the dogma that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed everyone, including the Blessed Mother, while at the same time affirming her complete sinlessness. If the Mother of God was entirely free from sin, how then did she need a Redeemer? “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Lk 1:46-47; cf. Rom 5:12). In 1661, Pope Alexander VII formulated the answer: “…her soul, from the first instant of its creation and infusion into her body, was preserved immune by a special grace and privilege of God from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of her Son, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of our human race…” (Apostolic Constitution Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum; Denz. 1100).
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX made the infallible proclamation:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
(Pope Pius IX, Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus)
St. Thomas did not deny what was defined thus. As Fr. Lumbreras demonstrates in the article linked above, the Angelic Doctor affirmed the very principles that ultimately led to the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception. To say that Aquinas “was wrong on the Immaculate Conception” is thus a half-truth at best, and it must certainly never be used either to question the Universal Doctor’s credibility or to dispute his authority.
The following papal documents underscore and reiterate the status of St. Thomas Aquinas as the Church’s greatest theological teacher:
- Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879)
- Pope St. Pius X, Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici (1914)
- Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Studiorum Ducem (1923)
The teaching of the Angelic Doctor is also the perfect antidote to Modernism. While paying lipservice to him, today’s Modernists pervert and undermine St. Thomas’ thought in their ressourcement theology. As Pope Pius XI counseled:
…[I]f we are to avoid the errors which are the source and fountain-head of all the miseries of our time, the teaching of Aquinas must be adhered to more religiously than ever. For Thomas refutes the theories propounded by Modernists in every sphere, in philosophy, by protecting, as We have reminded you, the force and power of the human mind and by demonstrating the existence of God by the most cogent arguments; in dogmatic theology, by distinguishing the supernatural from the natural order and explaining the reasons for belief and the dogmas themselves; in theology, by showing that the articles of faith are not based upon mere opinion but upon truth and therefore cannot possibly change; in exegesis, by transmitting the true conception of divine inspiration; in the science of morals, in sociology and law, by laying down sound principles of legal and social, commutative and distributive, justice and explaining the relations between justice and charity; in the theory of asceticism, by his precepts concerning the perfection of the Christian life and his confutation of the enemies of the religious orders in his own day. Lastly, against the much vaunted liberty of the human reason and its independence in regard to God he asserts the rights of primary Truth and the authority over us of the Supreme Master. It is therefore clear why Modernists are so amply justified in fearing no Doctor of the Church so much as Thomas Aquinas.
(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Studiorum Ducem, n. 27)
It is no wonder that “Pope” Francis recently railed against “decadent scholasticism”, which he carefully distinguished, of course, from the “real” St. Thomas.
During his lifetime, Aquinas produced an abundance of theological and philosophical writings. Here is a small selection in English translation:
- Summa Contra Gentiles: Print Book | Online Text
- Summa Theologica: Print Book: Hardcover or Softcover | Online Text
- Disputed Questions on Truth: Print Book | Online Text
- Disputed Questions on Evil: Print Book
- Against the Eastern Orthodox (Greek Schismatics): Online Text
- Against the Muslims and the Eastern Orthodox: Print Book | Online Text
- Anthology of Selected Writings: Print Book
For online access to countless scanned articles about Thomistic doctrine (and much more), we recommend The Catholic Archive.
A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. May this little post help to increase genuine knowledge and dispel ignorance.
Image source: composite with elements from Wikimedia Commons
Licenses: public domain